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Car reviews - Kia - Sportage - 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Value, practicality, style, comfort, compactness
Room for improvement
V6 performance, auto-only, downmarket image, no class leader

Kia logo24 Feb 2006

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

HOW we’d laugh!

Less than a decade ago Kia Motors’ catalogue contained cars so out-of-touch with the times it was impossible to take them seriously.

Case in point: the original 1996 Sportage. It was loosely (an apt term for describing how it felt and drove) based on the Kia Pride - a cheaper facsimile of the 1987-1990 Mazda 121.

This was hardly a solid foundation for a family 4x4.

The thing is, the first Sportage sold well despite its general flimsiness, toxic-shock interiors and scrappy road manners. Good looks helped. As did keen pricing ... and SUV-starved consumers.

Who was laughing now?

Luckily for misguided light-SUV buyers the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester came along in the late 1990s to save them from such rough and unrefined relics.

Now there’s the new KM Sportage, a car so different from its predecessor that the smiles are now on other people’s faces – namely Kia and the value-minded buyers who look beyond the badge (and heritage).

For starters, the styling is ruggedly handsome and well proportioned.

Kia’s designers obviously worked hard to differentiate the Sportage from its Hyundai Tucson twin, and it seems to have been more successful. It also doesn’t have that stunned wombat look that afflicts the Hyundai.

In its latter years the old Sportage’s ludicrously long overhang looked like the afterthought it really was, compounding that cheap-as-chips feel.

Now there are no cheapo cabins to suffer in either.

In fact, stepping inside, you just know that the Kia crew have been checking out stylish European cars like Volkswagens very closely indeed.

Silver accented dashboard trim, smart instrumentation, excellent ventilation and controls that fall easily to hand show that the Koreans have come a long way from the original Sportage.

No more joke low-fi materials and silly colours to laugh at. It doesn’t rattle, squeak or break easily either.

You sit high and mighty on reasonably comfy and supportive seats, in a cabin that’s cosy but not cramped for four adults. Vision is okay, although there’s quite a blind spot over your shoulders.

With a hard hump for your rump, the middle rear seat passenger doesn’t get it as good as the rest, but at least the lap-sash seatbelt won’t attempt to serrate your neck like the one in the (only slightly larger) Hyundai Santa Fe does. Kia via Hyundai has obviously put some effort in minimising this.

Like in all modern SUVs, the back seat splits and folds in an instant, increasing the luggage space and providing access to all sorts of hooks and nooks for bits and pieces. The tailgate also incorporates a nifty separate opening window for speedy access to them.

Your bounty also includes power windows, keyless entry, a CD/MP3 audio, cruise control, air-conditioning, a rear power outlet, alloy wheels and roof rails.

Safety is also sorted with trick anti-lock brakes, traction control, a limited-slip differential and dual airbags.

The latter helps keep the Sportage in line, since the Kia is the cheapest six-pot SUV you can buy.

It’s also auto-only. So while the 129kW 2.7-litre V6 has ample power, you need to push that needle well past the 241Nm torque top before the Sportage really starts to hustle along.

Which it does smoothly thanks to a quick and responsive four-speed gearbox that is fitted with a sequential-shift facility for when you’re in the mood for some manual-style motoring.

But beware of big fuel bills because at almost 1700kg this Kia is no Mia Farrow.

However, the steering is light yet measured in its weight and response, and a cinch to handle around town.

And compared to the first Sportage’s overall dynamic malaise the new model is a handling and roadholding revelation.

Corners can be taken briskly without the Kia leaning too much through them. Sure, sporty the Sportage ain’t. But there’s always plenty of roadholding grip to keep you from slipping and sliding.

If slip is detected than the usually front-drive Kia engages a clutch to employ the rear wheels for greater traction. That LSD stops unwanted wheel spin too. So slippery situations aren’t really a stretch for the Sportage.

Obviously this isn’t for tough off-roading but in sand or mud, for instance, all four wheels can be locked into action under 30km/h via a dash button. And the traction control can be turned off if you are that way inclined.

This, along with the good ground clearance, sets the Sportage aside (manual Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Tucson and Nissan X-Trail too) from most of its rivals.

So while it won’t scare Land Rovers off their beaten tracks, the Sportage is a likeable all-rounder.

And its impressive price-per-features ratio makes it an appealing alternative to other light SUVs – somewhere between the ruggedness of the Nissan and the agility of the now-superseded Toyota.

But with the new Grand Vitara and RAV4 here, as well as a host of newcomers arriving next year, the game may already be moving on for the Sportage.

If such trivialities don’t faze you then there are plenty of reasons why the affordable and capable Kia Sportage should put a big smile on your face.

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